– in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 28th March 2023.
To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the United Nations World Water Development Report, published on
My Lords, the UK supports the findings of the UN World Water Development Report 2023. We agree that partnership and co-operation are key to achieving sustainable development goal 6: equitable access to water and sanitation for all. However, delivery is far off track, particularly on accountability, political leadership and finance. At last week’s UN water conference I called for increased action in these areas and announced a new £18.5 million water sanitation and hygiene—WASH—system for health programme, as well as seed funding for a new £38 million water programme.
I thank the Minister for his reply. The report shows that where a country’s access to water is under threat, it can quickly lead to security issues, sometimes war, and eventually even higher levels of migration, so it is a subject that affects our country and every country in the world. One of the asks of the report is for partnerships to
“accelerate the development and uptake of innovative technologies through knowledge transfer, entrepreneurship and applied research.”
What are His Majesty’s Government doing to further the partnerships called for in the report?
The right reverend Prelate is exactly right on both counts, and our approach focuses very much on partnership and co-operation. The figures are huge: 2 billion people lacked access to safely managed water services in 2020, and 3.5 billion people lacked access to safely managed sanitation. He is also right about the link between water shortage and conflict. I think the House will find it as shocking as I do that children under five in protracted conflict zones are more likely to die as a consequence of unsafe water than from violence, so the link is absolutely there.
My Lords, will my noble friend encourage Ofwat and UK water companies to enter into a partnership programme with countries such as those identified by the right reverend Prelate? Can he explain why we are importing so much fruit and vegetables from countries in areas challenged by water stress, when we could grow much more at home?
I would love to see us produce more fruit and veg here in the UK. We produce wonderful fruit and veg. I suspect that the answer is that water is not priced correctly. Water is essential to all lifeforms on earth, yet we regard it as an expendable, infinite source. I suspect that is the reason why water footprints so rarely feature in prices.
My Lords, the simple fact is that fully functional WASH services are absolutely essential in healthcare facilities, as we heard from the noble Lord. The report highlighted gaps in co-ordinating provision with different agencies and NGOs. Can the Minister reassure the House that, when the Government attend the UN high-level panel meeting on universal health coverage, we will take up this question to ensure that those basic facilities are there to support health globally?
I absolutely can make that commitment. The water conference that I have just returned from was the first such conference in 46 years, which is a reflection of the lack of importance that has been attached to this critical issue for far too long. Over the course of the conference, between big business and Governments, 700 new commitments were made; if even half those commitments are seen through, it will have a life-changing impact for a very large number of people.
My Lords, last month I visited rural Malawi, where the source of water for the families in villages was a filthy stream, collected by hand, primarily by women and young girls. That area has been so badly affected by the horrific typhoon, and most of the victims have been women and girls. The Government have cut UK aid development assistance by 21% overall, but they have cut water and sanitary health support by 80%. Given what the Minister just said about the vital need for extra support, can he explain in clear terms, so we all understand, why there have been disproportionate cuts for water and sanitary health, affecting women and girls, most particularly in Africa?
The noble Lord makes the point about ODA cuts on most occasions when we debate. He is absolutely right to and, like him, I would very much like to see a return to the 0.7% spending—but that is something over which I am afraid I have no control. I do not think it is the case that water has been disproportionately cut. It may well be that the noble Lord is not aware of some of the programmes that directly overlap with this agenda but would not necessarily be described as water projects—not least, a whole new range of nature-based solutions that the Government are focusing on.
My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the expansion of population has not been marked by an expansion of water availability? One way in which that could be tackled is by putting more money into desalination programmes of the United Nations and other agencies to try to get more water processed from salinated water to drinkable water.
My noble friend makes an important point. There are lots of ways in which we can alleviate that problem. I add to his suggestion that the most important focus is to concentrate on the environmental link between water shortage and environmental degradation. To put that in context, the Congo Basin provides around two-thirds of Africa’s rain, so if we allow it to continue to be cut down at the rate it is currently being cut down—half a million hectares a year—one only needs to imagine the humanitarian crisis that would follow.
My Lords, is our influence in the world not somewhat diminished by the fact that we are pumping so much sewage into the sea and polluting our rivers, such as the Wye, with effluent from chicken farms?
The noble Lord is right to highlight this issue, despite the Question being on the international situation. The treatment by water companies of our waterways is and has been abominable. The British people expect much more, and so do the Government.
My Lords, given that only 54% of the world’s population are using safely managed sanitation services, as we have heard, what priority are the Government giving to our UK water companies to export their expertise and services, either through overseas development projects or via normal commercial channels?
My noble friend makes a very important point. We have a lot of partnerships. For example, since 2020 with Unilever we have supported 14,800 healthcare facilities with critical WASH supplies and services. We have trained nearly half a million health and other key workers on hygiene practices to help tackle the threat of Covid in 37 countries. I am afraid I cannot think offhand of such a partnership with one of our water companies, but I know that partnerships are core to how we approach this issue.
My Lords, on the theme of water scarcity and quality, can the Minister address two issues much closer to home? Can he tell the House how many new reservoirs have been built in England since 1991, when the population was 47.8 million, compared with nearly 56 million now? Secondly, can he provide data on the damage to human health caused by consumption of seafood taken from UK rivers and seas polluted by the discharge of raw sewage?
My Lords, I am afraid I do not know how many reservoirs have been built since 1991. I am sure that another department of government will provide that answer, but I am afraid I have no idea. I suspect that the answer is “not enough”. On the noble Lord’s question about the quality of seafood, to my knowledge the seafood captured by British fishing communities is of a higher quality than we find in most parts of the world. I am willing to be proven wrong if the noble Lord knows otherwise.
My Lords, I was recently in Nepal in my capacity as Colonel Commandant of the Brigade of Gurkhas and had the pleasure of visiting a WASH programme delivered by the Gurkha Welfare Trust. Such programmes have been delivered by the GWT for nearly 30 years, and just two years ago the GWT signed a new five-year contract. Unfortunately, while I was there I discovered that the five-year contract has now been cancelled after next year, and as a result the Gurkha Welfare Trust is going to have to make redundant some 300 employees who were delivering that programme at their own cost. I appreciate the cuts in ODA, but it rather proves the point that we have challenges. I simply ask my noble friend to look into this case.
It is not a case I know, but I will certainly look into it. The Gurkha Welfare Trust sounds like a very valuable organisation and I will be sure to raise this with colleagues in the Foreign Office.